10: Find Your People

There’s a three year-old at my summer camp whose favorite color is black. Faith is tiny, and fair-skinned, and looks to be the type who insists on wearing a pink, sparkly tutu, every time she leaves the house. The first time I ask her about it, I barely pause to hear the response. I assume it’s “glitter,” because the girls that look like her are saying that, every time.

It’s 2003 and I just finished my first year of college. I’m the second-oldest person on staff, but it’s the first job I’ve had where someone’s mom doesn’t hand me a wad of cash when I’m done with it. Some days, when my insecurity is talking, I wonder if I still don’t have a career at thirty because I got such a late start at nineteen.

Determined to fly under the “first-job” radar, I’m doing my best to fake ease and maturity, especially when other people are watching. Pretty quickly it’s clear that no one is paying attention. The other kids grew up here and have been working together for multiple, consecutive summers. Four weeks have passed and I’m still struggling to shake the outsider persona. Anything even slightly left or right of “center of attention” is far outside my comfort zone and I’m desperate to sneak into the cool group.

This week, I’m assigned a thirteen year-old junior counselor to “help” me out with my kids. So far my relationship to the junior counselors feels like babysitting a gawky, needy adolescent while chasing and entertaining 10 three year olds, all by myself.

I have no hope for this one. He’s short and keeps his curly dark hair poking out under a dirty, navy blue baseball cap. He wears tall, white, socks and long, black shorts and I decide, right away, he’s one of those dark, brooding, angsty boys who listens to punk rock and loves the color black. I already can’t relate to him, and it’s clear he’s out place at a children’s summer camp.

“It’s going to be a long week.”

By Tuesday, I’ve gleefully determined he’s the least annoying and most competent of the junior counselors. I still hope we don’t end up alone in conversation together because I don’t know anything about angry music or what it feels like to be tortured and deep.  Also, I don’t trust what I might say about his pre-pubescent mustache, if we end up face to face.

I step right into the fire of my anxiety when I see him standing alone at the craft table, twenty minutes after our campers were sent to lunch. I approach him with caution, and remind myself to stay focused on his eyeballs to avoid landing my gaze on his upper lip.

I see him carefully pasting grey and black strips of paper on a sturdy, homemade hat. He is intent on creating smooth creases and straight lines. Our craft that day was “Cat in the Hat” Hats, an unthinkably ambitious project for kids who can barely remember their own names.

Peter is finishing the last of our hats for Faith. He tells me, matter-of-factly, “I figured she’d only wear it like this.”

My heart melts and I vow never to judge another person again. I barely keep my promise through the end of the day, but Peter is embedded in my heart, forever.

In the next three days, we laugh and joke and mess with our kids, like we’ve been best friends for three lifetimes. I discover that Peter is smart and hilarious and weirder than anyone I’d ever met who wasn’t related to me. I’ve suddenly lost interest in breaking through the inner circle because I’m preoccupied with spending more time with my new friend.

Peter has a summer birthday and turns fourteen. He’s talking to me about starting high school and I remind him I’m already in college. We talk about school and romance and other kids at the summer camp. We share stories about our parents and siblings, and once in a while, I listen as he educates me about all the music he’s “into” right now.

Peter is my first friend that doesn’t look or act like the rest of them. He’s not the right age or the right image and it’s clear we’ll never go to a concert together. But for seven more summers, we are what we’ve always been to each other.

In 2004, my real-life best friend comes to work with us and is immediately sad and jealous. She’s been my partner in crime since we were thirteen and she’s not settling for someone else interfering. She throws three fits per week until, eventually, she senses the specialness of our bond and surrenders to unexpected truth of it.

In 2005, I decide I’m too old to sing songs and play tag for eight weeks and accept a serious, world-saving internship for the summer. Two and a half weeks later I’m on the bumper boats at Scandia Family Fun Center, taunting Peter about his loss in miniature golf.

The next morning I call my supervisor to tell her I’m moving home for “personal reasons.”

Peter graduated from high school and went away to college and things never changed between us. He was still my soulmate and my best friend and the boundary of age and experience continued to not matter to either of us. He grew up and confessed how awesome it was to have the attention of a nineteen year old woman when he was barely a high school freshman. I felt humiliated and naive as I admitted it was something I never considered.

It’s been over a decade since I met Peter, and three years since I left Camp Have a lot of Fun. In the time between, there have been other, unconventional friendships. Most of them were born out of the unique and beautiful family at summer camp, but some of them blossomed organically at the yoga studio or the high school where I used to work.

My friendship with Peter opened me to the possibility that “my people” could be something other than who they’d always been. It taught me that the people we belong to, and belong with, are out there for us to find and connect to. Our job is to seek them. Our “tribe”, our “community”, “our people”, are the ones who were always meant for us.  The ones with whom we never had to fake it. The people who see us, and get us, and accept us as we are, no matter what. The people we spark with, and the ones who make us feel safe. The people we show our weirdest and deepest and ugliest to, right away.

I cherish the thirteen year-old boy who loved me unconditionally, because I’ve been able to spot the ones who were capable of it, ever since.

Turn Around

That summer, Michael Phelps swam for nine gold medals. We watched every race, screaming our heads off, in Amy’s living room.

“We” are me, my best friend Amy, two of our summer camp counselors, and one under-achieving junior counselor who is the only person ever to crack into the Camp Have-a-lot-of-Fun inner-circle without being an extraordinary stand out of skill and motivation at work.

We spend our days chasing tiny kids around the world’s best summer camp. At night we turn “Footloose” on high volume and dance like we’re Kevin Bacon, alone in an abandoned warehouse, in 1984.

In between, we drive around Sacramento blasting this cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart. It’s the theme song of the summer: passionate, epic, completely ridiculous. We sing with the windows down, even when it’s one hundred degrees outside. We play air drums and pound on the dashboard. When the chorus comes up, we close our eyes, tilt our heads back and belt it out like it’s the last time we’ll ever sing it.

We are an unlikely group of inseparable friends. We range in age from 14 to 25. Out in public, we look like a throw-back family singing group or mixed bag of step siblings with varying degrees of babysitting responsibility.

We make each other laugh and hold each other up. We throw a slumber party, almost every night.

Some nights we are just the three of us. Me, Amy, and Jaimie. Jaimie is fifteen. Amy and I have been best friends since junior high school and are notoriously incapable of sharing our relationship with anyone else. We are college graduates moving towards demanding, professional careers. Jaimie is barely a junior in high school. Amy and I are agonizing over “who are we?” and “what is the purpose of this?” Jaimie wonders who she’ll have algebra with and if that boy she likes will text her back.

We are drawn together by a sisterhood that transcends time and age. By issues with our dads and striving for perfection. By being “good girls” and independent women. By discovering how those two identities intersect. By our love for puffy paint and elaborate costumes. By working with kids and our awesomeness at camp counseling.

By the type of strong friendship that’s rooted in unconditional love.

When the summer of 2009 begins, our family is reunited. Amy and I make space in our lives, and the backseat of our cars, for when Jaimie finishes her high school finals and we pick up where we left off. We all look forward to late night talks sharing a single, king size bed. To chocolate milkshakes at Jack in the Box after nighttime events. To feeling complete, again.

Two weeks later I’m in the most challenging conversation of my professional life. Amy and I are seated next to each other in the almost empty conference room at Mission North Park. We’re face-to-face with the first Camp Have a Lot of Fun employee we’ve ever had to fire.

I speak first because Amy cries just thinking about it. We all know what’s about to take place, but even up to the moment it happens, we hope, somehow, it won’t.

When Jaimie leaves, Amy and I burst into tears. We hug each other and take deep, cleansing breaths. The pain is raw and sharp. My face is hot and my shoulders are heavy. The tightness in my stomach becomes sharp and stinging, right around my heart.

There were so many ways, and reasons, to feel sad.

Amy and I had two more magical summers at camp. More special kids, of all ages, became forever a part of our beautiful, growing family. There were other theme songs and new dance-moves. There were sleepovers, and milkshakes, and puffy-painted clothes.

But we never replaced what we lost, with Jaimie.

We watched Jaimie walk across the stage at her high school graduation, but didn’t participate in her celebration. Each year we brought together every generation of camp counselors for Thanksgiving, but could never convince Jaimie to come. Our friendship became a distant memory and she became someone we followed on social media, a girl we used to know in real life.

This summer, we recruited the best of the best of our alumni camp counselors to compete with the current staff at Camp Have a lot of Fun. The brainstorming stages generated so much excitement we got overly ambitious with the invitations. We immediately dismissed the idea that Jaimie would participate, but couldn’t resist the urge to include her.

Minutes after Amy presses the send button in Sacramento, I get a call on my cell phone in Tahoe.

“Jaimie is in.”

I’m wandering frantically around the Southshore Raley’s looking for a private place to yell through the phone. Amy and I spend 15 to 20 minutes exchanging expressions of disbelief, intermittently interrupted by declarations of triumph, and excitement, and happiness, and relief.

We meet Jaimie in person, for the first time, outside of the conference room where we all thought it ended forever, four years before. We hug, cautiously, still wondering if the romance of this reunion is real.

The next five weeks are filled with friendship flashbacks, and fast-forwarding through updates from four, transformative years of our lives. Jaimie is twenty-one now and lives on her own. She bought a car and pays her bills. She’s survived more personal tragedy than she can share with us in a single sitting. She is a confident, strong woman, changed by the passage of time and the demands of maturity and life lessons. She has the same light, and humor, and spirit. And connection to us.

Over plates of Nachos at Dos Coyotes, we finally cry the tears, we’ve all been holding back.

We cry because we haven’t been there for Jaimie when she’s struggled so much. We cry for the time we’ve lost and the memories we could have made together. We cry for judgements, and mistakes and assumptions. We cry with gratitude for the chance to be together again. For the sisterhood that shaped us all, that’s survived so much. The love that lives on, that endures, that remains unconditional, no matter what.

When my phone makes the text message noise, I look down and see the names of my two best friends, side by side. I feel complete joy, all over my body. I think about the rarity of the miracle that brought us back together, the gift of forgiveness and the healing power of love. I reflect on the many stories in my life that ended differently than this one.

The ones where I lost track of someone I love and wondered how their life turned out. The times when my ego overshadowed my compassion, or completely got in the way. The relationships where I’ve refused to forgive, or let go, or move on. The places where I store resentment and anger. The hesitation to make amends and the refusal to take responsibility. An uneasiness in squaring up to the uncomfortable, when it’s so much easier to run away.

Back in 2009 we were all a part of it coming undone. We were all wrong, and all right, and all responsible. We were all hurt, and sad and angry.

And in 2013, none of it mattered.

All that mattered was our second chance: To hug and cry and sing out loud. To talk about boys, and our careers and drink chocolate milkshakes. To do all the things we’d always done, and all the things we thought we’d never do again.

Over Dinner

I ordered Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes and sat cross-legged on a cold metal chair. You chose a table on the ground floor of Novel Cafe. You’d only lived in Westwood a couple of weeks, otherwise you might have known to sit upstairs. When I arrived, the plate in front of you was dotted with remnants of baby spinach. I noted it as peculiar. I had a long and sordid history of male friendships, but couldn’t recall any of the men in my life ordering salad at a restaurant. Ever. Later, I would know you as a frequent consumer of cold lettuce and raw veggies. Usually from a square plastic box with a colorful Trader Joe’s label. One time from a folded cardboard container. A Whole Foods Salad Bar Caesar I’d assembled myself. I remember the care and consideration I’d used in selecting the ingredients. High quality. Right proportions. It was important to me that it tasted perfect, to you.

That first night was more “second interview” than “first date.” I was still skeptical about whether we’d end up really being friends. Were you funny enough? Interesting? Politically Engaged? Did you have a closet full of jersey cotton t-shirts with ironic phrases across the chest?

I asked my best “get to know you” questions and channeled my inner high school counselor. I probably chewed with my mouth open when I got excited and had a mess of dried maple syrup smeared across my chin.

It was the last time I felt any uneasiness between us. My last memory of us as anything other than best friends.

Our inaugural hangout was a foreshadowing of the months to come.

Week after week of Friday and Saturday nights spent laughing and talking through a light, organic meal and shared dessert.

Our relationship happened, and deepened, over dinner.

Sometimes the purpose and nature of our dates was unclear to one or both of us.

Like when you picked me up wearing sweat pants and I pranced down my concrete staircase wearing makeup and high-heeled leather boots.

Or the time I was forced to go out in your oversized zip-up sweatshirt because I’d showed up in the middle of the day in a tie-dyed  t-shirt. We planned to sit and “catch up for an hour.” It was early in our relationship. Soon after we realized that between the two of us, that phrase didn’t exist.

I knew I was doomed during our first homemade “dinner in.”

You masterfully crafted gourmet quesadillas from your two-burner makeshift kitchen while we sang and swayed to Ray Lamontagne. That night we played mini golf after threatening to find somewhere to “laser tag” in Los Angeles. On my short drive home, I thought about the ease of our relationship. It’s comfort and stability. How I was  going to avoid the inevitable disaster at the intersection of platonic soulmates and unrequited love. A  year and a half later, I could feel my patience unravel over a plate of sauteed brussel sprouts. You offered them to me tenderly, coaxing me out of my ball of exhaustion, curled up on your soft, beige couch.

I always thought we were best during those stripped-down stay-at-homes, but we had our share of beautiful nights out, too.

You salvaged the celebration of my 27th birthday with an elegant plate of fish and a fake story to the wait-staff about how we were engaged. Overlooking the ocean in Malibu, we wrote a screenplay about best friend lawyers who made a classic romantic comedy marriage contract as unlucky-in-love law students. We called it “At Arms Length” and staged the movie poster while holding hands, barefoot under the icy, mid-December tide.

We drank a bottle of wine to celebrate surviving our second year. You made our reservation under your celebrity pseudonym, John. We toasted to finding, and saving each other. As we left for more drinks at ” The W” I warned you about my irrepressible desire to make-out after more than one glass of wine. I was being honest, but also testing your always clear (and thick) boundaries. The boundaries that kept our unique relationship intact.

We demonstrated entrepreneurial genius and made countless strangers into friends. We made up elaborate narratives for the events and relationships at adjacent tables. Even now, there is no one else in the world with whom I would agree to “split a brownie.”

During dinners amidst our small social network, we kept people guessing. They wondered if we were “doing it” on the side of our friendship or secretly involved in a full-fledged affair. Every person we knew together had a different version of our story, not one of them mirrored the truth.

When we ate with your siblings, I wondered what they were thinking. I wondered both what you told them and how they evaluated it on their own. I wondered if some day, at our wedding, they would talk about the early days of light-weight denial and the destiny we collectively knew about, but of which, we never spoke.

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about  a year ago. My seasonal memory is a powerful storyteller and the images and sensations of February trap my mind in the re-living. I re-play every episode, evaluating what I might have done to re-write the ending.  We talked about dating, and marriage. About telling our families, and our friends. When you kissed me on my living room couch, I was trying so hard not to screw it up, it’s the only thing I barely remember at all.

It happened so quickly, then ended just as fast. A month later, we felt like strangers, again.

I ran from you, and hid from my feelings. You watched me leave, and let me hide.

Ultimately, we would repair the damage the same way we created it.

After months of dinners without you, on a garden patio in a Venice bistro, a week before the bar exam, we finally felt like us, like before. You ordered shrimp and I chomped though a kale and potato flatbread, wondering when the “greens on everything” trend would finally disappear. We took the “is this a date?” online quiz, a hysterical flow chart that could have been written exclusively for our relationship, at all stages of its evolution. It was both fitting and awkward. We could laugh out loud in silent recognition of the unreleased tension, the still unaddressed feelings underneath.

As the youngest patrons of a chic Brentwood eatery, on my last night in Los Angeles, we said, “goodbye,” over dinner.

It was the last time I looked at you and wondered how you could possibly resist doing this with me forever. I wondered why you didn’t reach across the table and beg me to stay with you. Why we were planning how we would stay in touch instead of how we would spend the rest of our lives, together. How dinner could possibly be better, or more fun, with anyone else.

Love in Southeast Asia: At the Top of the World

Damn it’s hot here.

The four word mantra that never gets old.

My travel partner, the manliest man I know, is wearing a Sarong to increase ventilation. And happiness. And sex appeal.

Maybe not that last one.

The heat is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. This includes all eight years of summer camping in Sacramento.

At 2 p.m., we leave our lavish accommodations. Even the synthetic magic of Luon can’t keep my shorts from getting stuck between my butt cheeks.

The mood in the van is part excitement, part dread.

At the base of the rock fortress we learn about killer wasps. The top of the rock is covered in wasp nests the size of my (old) mini cooper. Everywhere we look we see handwritten warning signs in questionable English translations.

In our group of seven, there are several bee allergies and at least one paralyzing fear of heights.

Morale is plummeting.

Amidst an enthusiastic debate about the proper way to survive a wasp attack, our rail-thin, wide eyed, Sri Lankan guide appears. Neil. I feel attached to him immediately. He has sunken eyes and a long face. His hair looks like Donnie from New Kids on the Block, circa 1991.

We follow Neil fifteen shuffling steps to a rectangular ditch carved into the red clay dust.

At first, he speaks softly. I turn my body to the right and aim my good ear at him.

He explains about the fortress. About the King who buried his dad alive in the side of the rock. He tells us about Buddhism and Karma, and that, when it finally came to him, the King had it coming. We learn about the 500 concubines and natural irrigation. One by one, each of us is pulled in.

The group energy is shifting as we make our way towards the first of over five thousand steps.

Neil talks about the fortress like he grew up in it. We all feel transported. The eroded cliffs take the shape of a thousand years ago.

We climb up a spiral staircase that juts out over the edge of the rock face. Looking down feels nauseating, and exhilarating, all at once.

A landing at the top of the staircase marks the base of the highest point on the fortress. Two giant lion paws reach out from the base. We look up and see the wasp nests. At first they look like solid masses of black ash. When we look closer, we notice the wasps are moving in a constant, rhythmic wave. They look industrious. And threatening. They’re up there buzzing about how they’re going to kill the next batch of tourists.

“Awesome.”

A makeshift tent houses two racks of dark green protective suits. We measure ourselves against them, make our choice, and zip-up.

“Let’s do this.”

Thin metal slats run straight up the side of the rock. We take each one gingerly but efficiently. Every time I look down I get woozy. Every time I look up, I see the wasps.

10 minutes inside my suit and my entire body is covered in sweat. The whipping wind feels cold against my skin.

“Do I really feel cold right now?”

I squeeze everyone in celebration.

“We made it.”

Instantly, it’s the most incredible experience of my life.

“It’s like we can see the entire country up here.”

I lean into the wind and take in my deepest breath of the trip. I open my eyes and notice the clouds are touchably close and the ground is almost invisible.

The seven of us sit perched on a ledge overlooking miles and miles of undeveloped, tropical beauty. For the first time I feel like my friends are my family. I feel proud of them, and grateful for each of them making it all the way up here. I feel lucky to have this experience and joyful that we made this journey together. I want to look each of them in the eyes and tell them I love them.

Everything is clearer at the top of the world.